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Mental health problems: an invisible vulnerability

07 October 2014

Mental health problems: an invisible vulnerability


Around one in 100 people in the United Kingdom has a specific and diagnosed mental health problem, such as bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or chronic depression, according to data from the Mental Health Foundation; and approximately 20% of us will experience a more common mental health problem at some point in our lives, including anxiety, depression, panic disorders and phobias. This may well be an underestimate, given the difficulties in capturing accurate figures.

The Equality Act of 2010, which draws together previous pieces of legislation around discrimination by gender, race, age, sexuality and disabilities of any kind, is the relevant legislation employers need to be aware of to deal with mental health issues in the workplace. Essentially, employers must not treat a disabled person less favourably than any other employee, including during recruitment and redundancy processes. The law in this case sees ‘impairment’ due to a mental health condition as a form of disability, which doesn’t have to mean a diagnosed clinical condition. Under the Act, employers must not discriminate on the grounds of disability and must also make reasonable adjustments to work practices and conditions in response to requests for support from employees.

While this may appear straightforward, in practice, mental health at work is a complex area that requires well-informed and thoughtful management. All employees clearly need to remain capable of doing the job they’ve been appointed to, however, having a mental health problem can cause disruptions to work performance.

A high level of stress on an ongoing basis, for example, leads to a fundamental change in our ability to perform. Anxiety, panic and depression cause a disruption in our hormones and emotions. When this becomes chronic, as in mental health problems, it affects the way we think about work, our relationships, achievements and capabilities. We can become unable to think clearly, to deal with complex decision-making; we can’t be creative, can’t cope with taking risks and can’t empathise with others. It also means we start being unable to find solutions to everyday problems and we lose hope that the situation of anxiety will ever change.

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